Book Review: L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?

Morales, L. Michael. Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. New Studies in Biblical Theology 37. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 190 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP

In this contribution to the NSBT series, L. Michael Morales examines the theology of the often overlooked book of Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch. Morales begins by describing the placement of the Lampstand and the Table of the Presence in the Tabernacle. The Lampstand appears to have been intentionally placed to shine light on the bread arranged on the table in order to visually portray God’s intention that his people should live continually in his presence. The book of Leviticus is about “dwelling with God in the house of God” (20). In the first chapter of the book Morales argues the Pentateuch is “shaped as a journey led by YHWH to himself at Mount Sinai” (37) where Israel is given the house of the Lord, the Tabernacle. Leviticus stands at the center of the Pentateuch in order to instruct God’s people how they may “ascend the mountain of the Lord” and live in the presence of the glory of their God.

Morales, Who may ascend the moountain of God?Humans are unable to live in the presence of God because of the rebellion of Eden. In the second chapter of the book Morales describes this “longing for Eden” as the foreground for reading Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch. God created Eden as a mountain temple in which humans were placed to worship God and Genesis itself provides a “cultic cosmology” as humans move away from life within the order of Creation to death and chaos (49). Adam becomes an exile from God’s presence and wanders east, prevent from returning to the presence of God by cherubim. Because of their rebellion, humans are exiled from the presence of God in Eden and cannot return to God’s presence.

Israel has an opportunity to “Return to Eden” in the book of Exodus (Chapter 3). The narrative context of Leviticus stands on the foundation of the redeemed people of God passing through the through the waters of chaos as they are led to the mountain of God. The goal of Israel’s redemption from Egypt was worship at the house of God (82) at another mountain of God, Sinai (86). There is a crisis at this point since no one is able to ascend the Mountain of the Lord. Only Moses is permitted to go up Sinai in his role as mediator. For Morales, the mountain represents approaching God in worship (89).

The Tabernacle is introduced after the covenant in Exodus (Exod 25-40). The Tabernacle is the way back to the living in the presence of God, but the book of Exodus ends with a another crisis: no one is able to enter the Tabernacle because it is filled with the Glory of God (Exod 40:35).

This crisis is answered by the book of Leviticus. In chapters 4-6 Morales demonstrates that the overall structure of Leviticus is a way of dealing with the uncleanliness which separates man from God, with the Day of Atonement at the center of not only Leviticus, but the whole Petnateuch. Leviticus 1-8 describe the sacrificial cult as a journey back to the presence of God, yet there is another crisis in Leviticus 9-10. At the very moment Israel experiences the presence of God and the priest begin their sacrificial ministry, Nadab and Abihu make unauthorized sacrifices and fall under God’s judgment (Lev 10). Morales suggests Nadab and Abihu may have drunkenly attempted to go past the veil which separates the glory of God from the people (149). They were unfit to be in God’s presence, so Leviticus 11-15 represents a “cleansing the house of God.”

For many Bible readers, the laws on clean and unclean in Leviticus 11-15 seem random and focused on matters which are not related to real spirituality. But as Morales points out, these chapters describe what it means to be clean, or “fit for the Presence of God” and what it means to be holy, or “belonging to God.” Things that are profane cause uncleanliness and therefore separate humans from God. They can be made clean, and clean things can be sanctified so they are fit for God’s presence. The Tabernacle is therefore a “sacred bubble . . . set within a sea of uncleanliness” (161). The most important demonstration of this concept is the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. On this day, an Adam-like priest approaches the presence of God with blood of atonement and the way back to the Lord is opened. This is a reversal of Adam’s expulsion to the east as the priest walks past the cherubim guarding the way back to Eden, For Morales, this is a “liturgical drama” (176). But there is also a sacred geography present on the Day of Atonement as well: the scapegoat carries sin into the wilderness, back to the chaos of non-creation (179).

This reentry into the divine presence is the key to understanding Israel’s call to holiness in Leviticus 17-22. Returning to the symbolism of the lampstand and bread of the Presence, Israel is to continually live in the light of God. The purpose of the lengthy “holiness code” is to deal with the crisis of uncleanliness which might prevent Israel from experiencing the presence of God. The goal in this unit is always communion and fellowship with God.

Having described Leviticus as the center of the Pentateuch, Morales traces the movement from Sinai and the tabernacle to Zion and Solomon’s Temple (chapter 7). Zion will be the mountain of God when Israel finally enters the land, but Morales sees the place of Abraham’s sacrifice (Moriah) as pointing ahead to Zion. Unlike Sinai, Zion will be the permanent place of God’s habitation (227), even though Israel’s unfaithfulness results in another “exile to the east.” After the exile Israel will return to Zion as a new Eden, citing Isaiah 51:3 (237). The prophets also look forward to a future when God’s presence will return to a “new Zion” (255).

This prophetic expectation leads Morales to conclude the book with an intra-canonical reading of his “drama of Leviticus,” from the earthly Zion to the heavenly Mount Zion. For the Gospel of John, the incarnation is the means by which God dwells once again with his people (260) and the sacrifice of Jesus at Passover deals with the ultimate uncleanliness separating humans from the glory of God. This is perhaps the weakest point in Morales’s typology, since in Leviticus it was the Day of Atonement which opened access to God, not the Passover. This is of course a problem for any attempt to create a typology between the Law and Jesus. But Morales is able to make the connection because the original the Passover provided redemption for Israel and brought then to Sinai; the new Passover initiates a new exodus in the Resurrection (277). Ultimately the eschaton will be the decent of the messianic kingdom to earth (299). Revelation 20-21 include a great deal of Eden language, including the Tree of Life.

Conclusion. Morales has contributed a very readable book on the theology of Leviticus. He places Leviticus in its immediately canonical context as the center of the Pentateuch. Although he does not develop his thesis for Numbers and Deuteronomy in as much detail as for Genesis and Exodus, it is clear the book of Leviticus is designed around the Day of Atonement as the means by which access to God is opened for Israel.

Since he attempts to read the theme of “ascending the mountain of God” across the canon, I would have expected Isaiah 2 and 25:6-8 to be more important to the argument of the book. Both texts refer to gathering of all the nations to the mountain of God in the eschatological age to worship in the presence of God. This shortcoming is a result of a limited section on the prophets, so it is understandable that he is unable to cover all of the reference to mountains in the prophets.

I have one minor problem with the book, and that is the overuse of the word “drama” as a metaphor for the book of Leviticus and the plotline of the Pentateuch. I understand this is a popular way to describe the movement of a book in biblical studies, but it has become an overused metaphor.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book not only for those interested in Leviticus, but also for the theology of the Pentateuch.

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Oren R. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land (NSBT)

Martin, Oren R. Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan. NSBT 34; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 208 pp. Pb; $20.00.   Link to IVP

This new addition to New Studies in Biblical Theology is a detailed study of the Promised Land as a canonical link from Eden to Kingdom. The land theme is important because it connects various biblical covenants into a developing story of typological fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem humankind.

Oren Martin Bound for the Promised LandAs is often observed, the kingdom described in Revelation is very much like the Garden of Eden. Martin shows how the beginning and the end are connected through the entire grand narrative of Scripture. Quoting Jon Levenson, Martin quips “eschatology is like proctology;” the beginning corresponds to the end (56).  But each successive stage in God’s redemptive plan escalates the typology so that the end of the story is not just a restored Eden on earth, but an entirely new Heaven and Earth.

In the first two chapters Martin develops his view that the Promised Land is a typology found throughout the canon. Beginning with the creation story, he traces the development of God’s redemptive plan, arguing Eden is the ideal kingdom ruled by God. Humans rebel against the king in the Fall and the effects of sin separate humans from God. The rest of the Bible is therefore the story of God’s plan of redemption. God is “reestablishing his kingdom through covenant” (42). These covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenant) are something like stages in God’s plan to restore Eden in the eschatological Kingdom of God. With respect to the New Covenant, Martin point to Jesus’ preaching of the presence of the Kingdom in his ministry as an “already established” restoration of Eden in the church. Yet he sees a still future new creation and kingdom coming in the eschatological age.

Having offered something of a sketch of the whole canon in chapter 2, Martin then provides the details of this developing typology on in chapters 3-9. For much of the Old Testament the promise of restoration is a future hope. While it is true Abraham does dwell in the Promised Land and the Israelites eventually return to the Eden-like Promised Land, the glorious return of Eden remains a tantalizing hope for a future restoration from exile. The promised restoration of God’s rule is in some ways “already” fulfilled, but in other important aspects, “not yet” fulfilled.

The hoped-for restoration from the Exile was inaugurated in the person and work of Christ. While it is difficult to trace Promised Land themes in the teaching of Jesus (117), Martin suggests Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom was an inauguration of the Kingdom and the promise of the land finds its fulfillment in Jesus. This is not a radically new suggestion, although it is critical for some of the theological reflections later in the book.

Martin attempts to find this same sort fulfillment in the epistles as well. There is, however, little in the Epistles that could possibly be taken as typology of the Land Promise. I found the brief material on Paul to be unrelated to a typology of Land, but Hebrews clearly uses a typological method and describes Jesus as a fulfillment of the whole Old Testament, including the rest Israel experienced when they entered the Land. Canaan is functioning typologically in Heb 3:7-4:13, for example, and there is a shift in chapters 12-13 from Sinai to Zion. More work is needed here since it is not clear from Hebrews that the fulfillment of the Land Promise to Abraham is wholly exhausted in the person and work of Jesus. The book would have been better served to omit everything except the material on Hebrews.

Martin describes the fulfillment of the promise in the book of Revelation, the shortest chapter in the book despite the fact Revelation has strong typological ties to the restoration of the Promised Land to God’s people. Martin’s focus in this chapter is almost entirely on the New Jerusalem and new creation as a restoration of the Edenic Temple. While this critique falls under the category “I would have written this part differently,” I do think Martin has missed a great deal which could support his overall thesis by limiting his brief comments in this way. For example, there is a great deal of “new exodus” language in Revelation, especially in the sequence of seven trumpets. The call to leave Babylon in Rev 17-18 could be understood as an allusion to the call to return from exile and return to the Land in Isaiah 40-66.

In the final chapter, Martin makes a series of theological reflections on the Promised Land. The thrust of his chapter seems to be to distance this study from Dispensationalism. In fact, as I was reading the book, I thought at many points Martin was a dispensationalist, or at least speaking in ways which resonate with the more academic dispensational theology usually described as “progressive dispensationalism.”

Dispensationalists maintain a distinction between Israel and the Church even in the present age and argue the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional and not wholly fulfilled in either the Old Testament nor in the Church. They look forward to a real fulfillment of the “land promise” in a future, literal kingdom of God. Since Martin’s study argues the Land Promise is fulfilled typologically in the work of Christ, the Church becomes God’s new covenant people. Yet Martin does say “all God’s promises find their ultimate fulfillment in the person and work of Christ as the culmination of God’s revelation and redemptive plan” (170), so there is still a future new creation which will continue (conclude?) the typological pattern of Eden. To my mind, this is an arbitrary limit placed Martin’s principle of typology expressed early in the book. If each successive use of a typology escalates, then the final restoration after the Parousia ought to be the most complete fulfillment possible. Dispensationalists include a restoration of Israel as God’s people in this ultimate fulfillment of the promise, Martin does not.

Conclusion. Martin has certainly delivered on his promise to create a biblical theology of the Promised Land. This book argues for the Land as a typological link throughout the various covenants of the Old Testament, covenants that find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Martin has contributed to the discussion of the over-arching plot of the whole Bible by pointing to the restoration of Eden as a possible controlling typology.


NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.